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Do 50 Years Really Make a Difference?

By Frank Rich

HARVARD may have long since forgotten the Class of '21, but the Class of '21-or at least part of it-has not forgotten Harvard. These men are returning this week for a fiftieth reunion in Cambridge at a time when the future of America's oldest college is as uncertain and unsure as at any time in its history. They are revisiting a Harvard that has few recognizable similarities to the institution that awarded them diplomas half a century ago. But they are coming back-and that, well, must say something.

There were about 650 members of the Class of '21, about 360 of whom are still alive today. Twenty members of the class are "lost"; of the deceased, about 75 have died in the past five years. Still, at least 125 old Harvard men are spry enough to make the trip to their old school this commencement week and arrive they did at Dunster House, their reunion headquarters. Dunster House, of course, did not exist when these men were undergraduates.

As college boys, these were the people Scott Fitzgerald chronicled in This Side of Paradise, a first novel which caused a sensation during '21's junior year. They graduated into a world of raccoon coats and Warren Harding, crazy prosperity followed by a dizzying bust. During the final weeks of their spring reading period, Sacco and Vanzetti endured their first trial. In 1921, Lenin announced his New Economic Policy, Ezra Pound's first four cantos were published, and Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie hit the boards. Radio was catching on.

But all that's water under the bridge, isn't it? The Class of '21 survived and, like all Harvard classes, mine ('71) included, went on to provide the world with investment bankers, lawyers, corporation directors and trustees, doctors, scientists, teachers, salesmen. Harvard '21 also gave the world some celebrities and, although it's not nice to talk about such things, some failures.

Interestingly enough, most of the famous names of '21 are in one field: journalism. John Cowles, king of the publishing family that recently gutted one of America's best magazines ( Harper's ), is in the class. So is Roy Larsen, Time-Life kingpin, who, in his autobiographical note in the class's reunion report, offers to send classmates copies of the recent Time Inc., The Intimate History of a Publishing Empire "with [his] compliments." And there is also none other than Lawrence Spivak, the tough-minded moderator of the long-run Meet the Press.

George Kennedy '21 is a journalist I'm particularly familiar with, as he wrote the "Rambler" column, a mainstay feature of one of my hometown papers (The Washington Evening Star ), for several decades. Harold Guinzburg, who died in 1961, is the publisher who founded the still flourishing Viking Press as well as the Literary Guild of America.

NOT THAT this class failed to come up with the stuff in areas outside the publishing world. Jack Straus (of the Macy's family) was here fifty years ago and is still around to lament that his "greatest frustration in life [has been his] lack of athletic prowess." (Oh well. He survived.) A classmate of Straus's was Paul Tishman, and Mr. Tishman is an interesting case. In the class report, the Secretary notes that he has heard nothing about Mr. T since the 30th reunion, at which time "he wrote that he was in the contracting and building business." Talk about euphemisms! Mr. Tishman has built some of the most financially lucrative, not to mention ugliest, skyscrapers in New York. (Tishman buildings can often be identified by their pimples.)

Members of Harvard '21 were generally too young for World War I and too old for World War II (only five classmates lost their lives in combat), so perhaps it's not surprising that there are few politicians among its ranks. Still there is Powers Hapgood (d., 1949), who completed Harvard in three years so he could spend his senior year working in iron and coal mines, railroad yards and Chicago slaughter houses. Hapgood went on to become a leader of the United Mine Workers, a defeated Socialist candidate for Governor of Indiana, a major organizer of the CIO and an early member of the NAACP.

One member of the class was assassinated -Yii Loo Tang, who met his demise while working for the Nationalist Chinese Minister of Finance in 1931.

Others entered show business. Harvard '21 gave us Royal Beal, the character who died recently. There was also Robert Lord, who wrote Tom Mix westerns and won an Oscar for best screenplay (in 1932 for One Way Passage, a Tay Garnett picture) and worked with L. B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner and Humphrey Bogart. Another member of the class toured in a road company of Blossom Time.

MOST OF THESE Harvard men, though, led quiet lives. Many of them are enjoying retirement in Florida or the upper reaches of New England now, and, in the mini-autobiographies they sent to James Lowell, their class Secretary, they often reveal the kind of good humor and intelligence that never goes out of style.

George Cutler, for instance, described his life as "A Complete Flop." Joseph Bransten wrote that his "business career has been one of complete nepotism." I would particularly like to meet the class's most flamboyant live wire, Serge Daniloff, who wrote:

Occupation: None.

Sports: Stopped sports car racing in 1964 and riding to hounds in 1969. Riding, however, is still my favorite sport (France). Next: swimming (Mediterranean).

Intellectual pursuits: Reading is my violent passion. I read everything and remember nothing. Moving to larger quarters to accommodate my ever-growing library. I am very much interested in modern painting (figurative and abstract) and in chamber music (except dedacophoni)....

Conclusion: Profile of a parasite.

As much as one can tell from the available autobiographies, Harvard '21 does not seem all that different politically from most Harvard classes, at least until recent years. There are some who shout approval for Agnew and hatred for long-haired "liberals," but most of those who state political beliefs state progressive ones.

Certainly most of Harvard '71 would have little trouble talking with an alumnus such as Eliot Hirshberg whose "pet political aversion is Richard Nixon, followed closely by his friend, John Mitchell." Or Robert Conrod, who wrote: "I loathe and strongly regret the Vietnam War as immoral, illegal, evil, hateful, disgraceful, contemptible, racist, and entirely unworthy of the United States as a nation. I am proud that my three sons have been intelligent and courageous enough to avoid any participation."

I also felt at home with the apocalyptic views of William Cary, Jr., who says he fought in World War I "to make the world safe for the next world war." He adds: "In June, 1971, I was blown to bits, along with almost everybody else in the world, when the U. S., having been prevented by public outcry from using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, did indeed use them in Latin America (claiming, of course, that to do so would save lives and shorten the war). So most of us are dead-to all intents and purposes... What a garden-spot this planet could have been, if ... if ...!"

A VERY high number of the autobiographies express a driving interest in ecological issues-such as preservation of what glorious landscapes remain in the U. S. and issues of abortion reform and population control. One graduate expressed a strong belief in the concerns of Women's Liberation. Wrote Charles Hartshorne: "Racism continues to be a dismal scandal, and so does the failure of people to realize the full meaning of technology for the possible and, on valid grounds, desirable, emancipation of women from the socially assigned restriction to being mere wives and mothers... We white men have got to outgrow the lingering superstitions about sex and race, and rethink customs and institutions which are adequate to the dangers and difficulties that technology has produced."

The years separating the Harvard careers of these men and myself seem easily spanned-and they are far from the only members of Harvard '21 who have maintained an active concern for the fate of the world during the century they have grown up with. Walter Bieringer devoted a large part of his life to working with concentration camp refugees. William Hansberry (d., 1964) spent 42 years teaching at Howard University, pioneered in the field of Afro-American studies and worked unstintingly to raise money for the college education of Africans at America's foremost black university during a time when virtually no one eared about such things.

Were these men the mavericks, the eccentrics of the Class of '21? Of course they probably were. For every Hansberry (who might well have been the only black in the class) there was someone like the guy who headed Standard Oil and now spends his time at golf or bridge. Or the alumnus in this class who managed the financial affairs of Harvard before George Bennett got his grasping hands on the portfolios. Or the one who finds the greatest pleasures in life at the Myopia Hunt Club. Or the one who boasts that his granddaughter helped elect James Buckley Senator of New York. Or the countless number of alumni who counted out their years at stockholders' meetings or brokerage houses or corporation law firms.

STILL, no matter what the Class of '71 may look like to the Class of '21, there is as much that remains the same as there is that is different. Someone in our class will undoubtedly be assassinated. Someone else is likely to enter the publishing business and build an empire.

On the other hand, very few of you have smoked marijuana, most of us have. Very few of you felt the need to demonstrate in the street (or in Harvard Yard) for political change, a lot of us have felt this need. Most of you went right from Harvard to the career of your choice; a large percentage of us have no idea what career we want. (And some of us who do are finding some difficulty in cracking graduate schools or the job market.)

In 1921 you could probably not picture your fiftieth reunion any better than we can now. Perhaps you could see the future a bit easier; at least there was no atom bomb then. Could you imagine the television cameras?... Which is all beside the point. Like the Class of '21, that of '71 has learned, if nothing else, that Harvard is bigger than all of us. If we can last, it will. Who knows? 2021 may sneak up on us without our even knowing it. If so, I hope my fiftieth reunion is held in a slightly more attractive building than Dunster House.

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